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image of man with sleep apnea wearing CPAP machine

How to Sleep Better With Sleep Apnea

Chances are, someone you know has sleep apnea. According to the National Sleep Foundation, as many as 20% of U.S. adults suffer from the condition. That’s a staggering number of people—many of whom will never be diagnosed—living with a potentially life-threatening sleep disorder. I’m one of the lucky ones: My sleep apnea was discovered early, before it had a serious impact on my health. Here are some of the things I’ve learned in the last 18 months about how to cope with a sleep apnea diagnosis.

What is sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in a person’s throat relax, blocking the airway and causing a momentary cessation of breathing. The person then wakes up, gasps for air, and goes back to sleep. The sleep apnea process can repeat hundreds of times a night, preventing the body from entering deep sleep and depriving it of much-needed oxygen. This can result in high blood pressure, leading to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Who is at risk for sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is on the rise in the United States. That’s mostly because the population is getting older and more obese, two major risk factors for the condition. The people most likely to suffer from sleep apnea are older, overweight males—particularly African Americans, Pacific Islanders, or Hispanic men. However, the full range of risk factors is broad and complex. Other risks include sedative or alcohol consumption, having a small or recessed jaw, a narrow airway, large tonsils, a large uvula, or a wide neck.

Bottom line: anyone—even high-performing athletes—can suffer from sleep apnea. And though I’m no high-performing athlete, I learned the hard way that you can’t always predict when sleep apnea will strike.

How I discovered I had sleep apnea

It never occurred to me that I might have sleep apnea. I’m young, I weigh about 160 pounds, and I don’t snore. I don’t fit the stereotype. But after about a year of intense, debilitating fatigue, my doctor suspected something was up and sent me to a sleep clinic. If not for her suggestion, I might never have known.

I spent one night hooked up to more electrodes than I could count and received some surprising results a few days later. Among the many things sleep doctors measure is the number of times your body wakes up for lack of oxygen. If someone wakes up more than 30 times an hour, they have “severe” sleep apnea. During my test, I woke up about 44 times an hour.

Like most sleep apnea patients, I was prescribed CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) therapy to keep my airway open. It took me a long time to get used to a machine blowing air into my lungs every night, but now it’s indispensable. After only one night with a CPAP, I felt more alert than I had in months. I went through at least five different options before I found a mask that fit comfortably, but now I hardly notice my face-hugging apparatus, and the machine is portable enough that I can take it anywhere. A side bonus: once I got used to it, the sound of the motor serves effectively as a white noise machine!

Sleep apnea sleep tips

Since my sleep apnea diagnosis, I’ve had to make significant adjustments to my lifestyle. My treatment factors into more decisions than I ever expected. Along the way, I’ve picked up some tips about how to cope with the condition. These are the ones I found most effective.

  • Choose the best sleep position for sleep apnea. I spend most of the night sleeping on my back, which doctors say is the worst position for breathing disorders like apnea and snoring. Lying supine can allow your soft palate to relax and block your airway. Side-sleeping, on the other hand, is less likely to result in obstruction. You’ll probably need a softer mattress for this to work, because side sleeping puts the greatest amount of pressure on your hips and shoulders, or you can specifically look for the best mattress for sleep apnea. Stomach sleeping can work too, but that’s the worst position for your back. If you have trouble staying off your back, some doctors suggest sewing a tennis ball into the back of your pajama shirt. Drastic I know, but it works!
  • Clean your CPAP regularly. Your CPAP sits by your bedside all day, gathering dirt, dust and grime. If you have a humidifier, that moisture makes a CPAP even more inviting for bacteria. At least once a week, in the morning, dunk your CPAP paraphernalia in soapy water, and—this is crucial—give it the best part of a day to dry. Hang the tubing so the water can drip easily from both ends as it dries. You can wash your mask cushion more frequently. At the very least, keep some baby wipes handy and give the cushion a swipe every night before bed. A dirty cushion won’t seal properly, shifting and making noise throughout the night.
  • Maintain your CPAP like any other piece of machinery. The CPAP is partly mechanical, so it can be finicky. Pay attention to how it sounds every night, and note anything unusual. Make sure to check and replace the filters, as this can contribute to noise and faults with the motor. If you travel with your CPAP, check it after every flight. Jostling and shaking can damage the motor. I’ve already had to replace mine once for a mechanical fault, and I’m pretty sure a bumpy flight was to blame. See if your insurance will cover a replacement in case of mechanical failure.
  • Plan for the unexpected. Relying on a CPAP reminds you of how much you take other necessities for granted: electricity and bottled water, for instance. Once during a storm, we lost power for over 12 hours. In addition to spending a night in the Texas heat without AC (and having to dump our entire fridge in the morning) I also had to forgo my CPAP. Sometimes I’ve traveled to places where there was no outlet close to the bed, and we’ve had to improvise. For these situations, consider buying a portable power supply and an extension cord. In some places distilled water can be hard to come by. Now I make sure to carry a decent supply of the stuff before I set out on a road trip. Likewise, when traveling in Europe, I realized that apnea was not as commonly diagnosed there, and so few places sold distilled water for this purpose. Pro tip: deionized water, available from most mechanics, works in a pinch. Resist the urge to use tap water, especially in places with “hard” water supplies, unless you want to be scrubbing grime from your humidifier chamber for the first 30 minutes of your day.

CPAPs can’t solve everything

My CPAP changed my life immeasurably for the better, but it’s not a magic cure for all sleep problems. You still need to maintain an otherwise healthy lifestyle, especially if you have some of the underlying conditions that lead to apnea in the first place. Don’t get complacent. Once the initial euphoria of a full night’s worth of oxygen wears off, you’ll encounter the same issues that everyone faces: good nights, bad nights, decisions you’ll regret in the morning. CPAP therapy will get you to a place where you can have a normal, functioning life—but the rest is on you.